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Child Custody | Family

Can a Stepparent Get Custody of a Child?

7 min read
Philip Ahn, Attorney

by Philip Ahn, Attorney

Yes, a stepparent can get custody of a child. In general, however, stepparents do not have automatic legal rights to child custody.

If the child’s biological parents are still alive and have legal custody of the child, the stepparent would need to seek legal guardianship or adoption. This would involve going through a legal process that may require the biological parent’s written consent or involvement, as well as a determination by a court that the stepparent is a suitable guardian or adoptive parent.

Obtaining Custodial Rights

Suppose the biological parents cannot care for the child or have had their parental rights terminated. In that case, the non-biological parent may be able to obtain custody through a legal guardianship or adoption process.

In such cases, the family court will consider the best interests of the child when deciding custodial issues.

The court will also consider the following:

  • The relationship between the parental figure and the child
  • The stability of their home environment
  • Any other relevant factors
  • The wishes of the birth parents, if known

The adoptive parent must meet strict criteria to be granted guardianship or adoption of a child, including the following:

  • Being responsible
  • Financially secure
  • Able to provide a safe and stable home for the child

Interested third parties in a child’s custody or visitation rights can petition the court to intervene in the custody proceedings.

Child’s Legal Parent

The legal parent of a child is typically determined by factors such as:

  • Biological relationship
  • Adoption or
  • A court order

The child’s parent who is granted physical custody is the custodial parent or legal parent. This means they are responsible for the following:

  • Providing a home and daily care for the child
  • They may also make medical treatment decisions
  • Attend school functions and access school records

A noncustodial parent can request visitation or physical custody rights in court. The court will consider the best interests of the child when determining visitation and physical custody rights.

If a spouse passes away and the child is left without parents, a relative or someone who will provide for the child’s best interest may seek custody.

Legal guardianships, or custody arrangements, allow an individual or couple to take legal responsibility for a child and make decisions concerning their upbringing.

If a living parent isn’t available, a court may appoint a custodian to manage the child’s affairs. This is known as Custodial Guardianship and is established by a court order.

Establishing Biological Parentage

A biological parent is automatically considered their child’s legal parent, regardless of whether they are married to the other parent. In cases where the parents are unmarried, establishing paternity (the legal father-child relationship) may require genetic testing or other evidence to establish biological parentage.

Stepparent Adoption

Adopting a stepchild gives stepparents to have the same rights as the birth parent, including making decisions about their:

  • Education
  • Healthcare
  • Well-being

Non-Biological Parents’ Custody or Visitation Rights

Non-biological parents may be granted custody rights under certain circumstances, but it depends on the laws of the jurisdiction in which they reside.

In general, non-biological parents may be given legal rights if they have a close relationship with the child and if it is in their best interests to maintain that relationship.

In some states, non-biological parents may be able to seek custody or visitation rights if they can demonstrate that they have acted in a parental role for the child and have established a significant relationship with the child. To request visitation rights, guardians should contact their local court administrator.

Stepparent’s Rights to Child Custody or Visitation

In some cases, stepparents may seek legal custody of a child. This can often be done with the consent of the birth parent. A stepparent may obtain child custody through a court order if they can demonstrate that it is in the child’s best interests.

Generally, a court will require that the birth parent sign a consent form waiving his or her parental rights and agreeing to award custody to the stepparent. The consent form is then filed with the court, and a custody hearing may be scheduled. In some cases, the other parent voluntarily surrenders the custody.

If the child resides in a stepparent’s home, the stepparent has the same legal rights and obligations as a parent. A stepparent’s rights vary from state to state, so they must understand their legal rights in cases of divorce or death.

A stepparent gaining custody and visitation rights of a child can significantly impact the child’s life positively and negatively.

On the positive side, a stepparent who gains custody can:

  • Provide the child with stability, love, and support, especially if the biological parent is absent or unable to provide proper care
  • Offer a safe and nurturing environment for the child to grow and thrive in, providing a sense of continuity and consistency in the child’s life.

However, there can also be adverse effects of a stepparent gaining custody. A child may feel torn between loyalty to their biological parent and the stepparent and may experience:

  • Confusion
  • Anger
  • Resentment
  • A sense of loss if separated from their biological parent or extended family
  • A struggle to adjust to routines and expectations in a new household

Children’s Reactions To Stepparent Child Custody

Children’s reactions to adoptive parents gaining custody can vary depending on their:

  • Age
  • Personality
  • Circumstances surrounding the custody and visitation arrangement

Younger children may be more adaptable to changes in custody arrangements and more readily accept a new parental figure as a primary caregiver. Older children may have a more difficult time adjusting and struggle with feelings of loyalty and attachment to their birth parents.

Joint Custody Arrangement Between Parent and Stepparents

A joint custody arrangement can be requested in court by either parent. It is important to note that both legal parents must agree on the terms of the custody arrangement, and a judge must approve the request. Sometimes, a non-parent may request custody if they believe it benefits the child’s welfare.

Can Stepparents Be Required To Pay Child Support in a Custody Battle?

In some cases, step-parents may have financial support commitments towards their step-children, depending on the laws of the jurisdiction in which they reside and the specific circumstances of the stepparent custody case.

Generally, a non-biological parent may be required to provide economic support if:

  • They have legally adopted the child
  • If a court has ordered them
  • They have voluntarily agreed to provide support

However, when one biological parent is still alive and legally responsible for supporting the child, the non-biological parent may not be required to provide financial support. The specific laws regarding non-biological parent-child welfare can vary by jurisdiction, so it’s essential to consult with a family law attorney in your area for guidance.

Would A Stepfather Be Considered A Parent Or A Guardian In A Custody Battle?

Whether a stepfather is considered a parent or a legal guardian depends on the legal and factual circumstances of the situation.

In some cases, a stepfather may be regarded as a parent if:

  • He has legally adopted the child
  • Or has been granted legal parental rights through a court order

In these cases, the stepfather would have the same rights and responsibilities as a biological parent, including:

  • The right to decide about the child’s upbringing
  • The leeway to make healthcare decisions
  • The right to make education decisions, attend school events, view school records
  • Other essential matters

In other cases, a stepfather may be considered a guardian if he has not legally adopted the child but has been given legal authority to make decisions on behalf of the child. A court may appoint a legal guardian if the child’s biological parents are unable or unwilling to care for the child or if they have had their parental rights terminated.

Safeguarding Your Rights as a Stepparent

Are you seeking stepparent rights? If so, an unbundled attorney can provide legal advice, prepare legal documents, and represent you in court for specific matters related to your stepparent custody rights, such as custody, visitation, or child support.

Unbundled legal services are usually more affordable than traditional full representation, with costs typically ranging from $500 to $1,500. In comparison, full representation by a regular lawyer typically costs from $3,000 to $5,000 and up.

While unbundled legal services may not be appropriate for every situation, they can be highly advantageous when you only want to pay for specific services. Our attorneys also offer affordable options for increased representation.

Contact an unbundled lawyer today to protect your custodial rights.

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